When Everything is Important Nothing is Important

question-mark-2110767_1280As Southern Baptists, we understand ministry programming. We have a program for everything. It is fair to say that ours is a program-heavy, program-laden denomination. When I use the term “program”, I am referring to the plans or structures used to reach, educate, and engage specific ministry audiences. Programs such as Men’s Ministry (formerly Brotherhood), Women’s Ministry, VBS, Missions, Sunday School, Discipleship Training, Evangelism, Church Music, and WMU are designed to help plug children, youth, adults, and senior adults into the life of the church. None of them are inherently bad. Add to the mix para-church ministries such as AWANA, Upward, FCA, Samaritan’s Purse, Community Bible Study, Cru that seek to further engage God’s people in ministry and you can soon have more programs than you can effectively supervise and administer. When you add a third layer of activity such as corporate worship, Bible study, internal fellowships, and special holiday services, the pace within the church can become dizzying difficult to maintain – not to mention the challenges of financing, staffing, and publicizing these activities.

One of the books I have read recently is Barry Schwartz’s, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. He advocates that whether we’re buying a pair of shoes, ordering a cup of coffee, selecting an insurance company, or deciding on which college to attend, everyday decisions—both big and small—have become increasingly difficult due to the over-abundance of choice with which we are presented. His belief is that too many choices lead to two pitfalls: decision paralysis and regret. Decision paralysis occurs because we are overwhelmed with all the options, resulting at times in no decision at all. If we manage to navigate the paralysis and decide, regret lurks in the background, calling into question whether our choice was the correct one. His work led me to consider the busyness of our churches today. Further, his work has caused me to consider my own approach to church ministry. If Schwartz is correct, the same two pitfalls (paralysis and regret) exist for churches having too many programs and activities.

Decision paralysis. In church ministry, a plethora of programs and activities make the next step unclear. In churches today, many things are presented as “opportunities for involvement” or “points of connection.” At times, it becomes hard to keep up with the barrage of announcements unloaded in a 3-4-minute window. As the number of opportunities increases, the likelihood that people will decide to do any of them decreases. How many times have you been shopping for a big-ticket item (car, furniture, television, etc.) and had to walk away due to an overwhelming number of options? Church members face the same dilemma when wading through the choices they are presented. When multiple events are scheduled on the same day or at the same time, this paralysis becomes even more intense.

Regret. An overabundance of programs, activities, and opportunities increases the busyness of a church but lowers confidence in what is offered. If everything is important nothing is important. When people go to A, they likely wonder if they should have gone to B. When people choose C, they often wonder if D would have been a better choice. How many times have you purchased that big-ticket item, took it home and began to wonder if “the other one” would have been better or more enjoyable. This is referred to as buyer’s remorse.

I have always advocated for a “more is better” approach to ministry because that is what I have been taught in 20 years of pastoral ministry – programs are the answer to the church’s problems. Based on recent ministry observations and conversations with different people, I am learning that more is not always better, it’s just more. I am learning that programs can be the cause of some problems within the church.  I am learning that such a fast pace and aggressive approach is difficult to maintain. It’s impossible for churches to do everything excellently. When the church attempts to become all things to all people, offering every conceivable program, it can become wide and not deep. The downside of too many choices in the church is that activity can pull people away from relationships and family, away from living on mission in the world around them. I am learning that activity does not equal spiritual transformation.

Before I am accused of saying something I did not say, I am not opposed to ministry programs and church activities. I do however believe that church leadership must know the body and its ministry context; then utilize the needed programming and necessary level of activity. Imagine for a moment your vehicle is in the repair shop to have the alternator replaced. The mechanic may have a large and extensive collection of tools at his disposal. That doesn’t mean that he/she will use every single tool in the box on your repair – only the necessary ones. Ministry programs are only tools. They are a means to an end – the spiritual transformation and development of the God’s people. To avoid decision paralysis and regret, and to bring about real transformation, a “less is more” approach may be in order.

Missional Monday: Responsibility and Return on Investment

MMlogoChurch leaders must understand the “why” of community engagement. These leaders must understand what drives them beyond the walls of the church and into the mission field – the neighborhoods, businesses, and schools where their community works, plays, and studies. God told Israel in Jeremiah 29:7 to, “seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive and pray to the Lord for it; for in its peace you will have peace.” In Acts 1:8, the disciples would very shorty be empowered to be bold witness for Jesus Christ wherever they found themselves. Together these verses reveal an important truth: the church has a responsibility to engage, pray for, and minister to those who are outside its walls. Without a doubt life-changing ministry in difficult. Life-changing ministry can be messy. Life-changing ministry can be time-consuming. Life-changing ministry has a financial component to it as well. Funding is required for materials and services. From time to time those inside the church will wonder, if only to themselves, “What are we getting out of all this work and involvement in the community?” This question, at the very basement level, is one of reimbursement.

There is a danger associated with the church expecting reimbursement from the community for ministry on its behalf. To reimburse means to “make repayment for expenses or loss incurred.” If the church sees community ministry as a loss from the very beginning, certainly there will be cries for reimbursement. If the church sees community ministry as a mean profit materially from the people, certainly there will be demands for repayment and compensation. What would this look like? How might a church unintentionally seek reimbursement from their community?

Filling a seat in the sanctuary.Churches may take a stance such as “we went to them now they need to come to us.” A common question asked by congregants is “Where are the people we have been ministering to?” The easiest measurement of ministry success is an occupied seat in the sanctuary. Although the easiest measurement, it is not always the correct one. Ministry is an investment. It may require multiple engagements before the gospel is understood and embraced. Churches must be comfortable with the fact that beneficiaries of their ministry may never connect to their church body. Churches must understand they are involved in a kingdom work that is slow coming. This is not easy for many.

Filling the offering plate. Churches may also take a stance such as “we gave to them financially now they need to give back to us”. Our world has conditioned us to expect something in return for services rendered. The old saying goes, “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” This would be true if you viewed your community exclusively from the business standpoint, viewing them as merely consumers. Is it true that your community may take a consumer approach to the church? Absolutely. The church must resist the temptation to “even the books” and fully embrace the teachings of Jesus Christ where we are reminded that to whom much is given, much is required.

Ministry in which the gospel is communicated and delivered, regardless of the acceptance of it, can never be viewed as a “loss incurred.” If there is no loss incurred, there is no need of reimbursement. Church leaders, the economic laws of supply and demand and return on investment are measured much differently in the church. Be generous. Give what you have.

 

Veterans Day 2018

Why-is-Veterans-Day-on-November-11thToday is Veteran’s Day. It is a day set aside to honor and recognize all the men and women who have served in our armed forces. Veterans Day originally began as Armistice Day, a day which celebrated the signing of the armistice, or peace agreement, between the Allies and Germany that ended the major hostilities of WWI. These hostilities ended at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the first holiday for November 11, 1919. On that day he said, “To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with lots of pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations.” Armistice Day was later changed to Veterans Day in 1954. Since the change veterans from all services and campaigns are recognized and honored.

Our service members sacrifice a great deal in the defense of our country. They sacrifice their personal comfort. Living conditions are not always ideal. From spending weeks in the field training to enduring extreme hot and colds in locations around the world, comfort is not always a priority. Our service members also sacrifice their families to some extent. Multiple deployments and extended training times pull our service members away from the ones they love. In some cases, a year or more. They miss important family dates (birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, etc.) and miss seeing their children grow up. More than anything else, they sacrifice themselves. Our service members expose themselves to not only physical harm, but emotional and mental trauma as well. The images of war are everlasting and life-changing. Our soldiers not only come home physically hurt, but mentally scarred as well.

On this Veterans Day, I would like to simply say “Thank You” to every Soldier, Marine, Seaman, Airman, Coast Guardsman, and National Guardsman who has given a part of themselves in defense of the country we love so much. You and your family are appreciated more than words can express. If you enjoy the ability to come and go as you like, work where you wish, worship in the place you choose, freely and without restriction, thank a veteran. If you enjoy being able to participate in the democratic process, speak in opposition to government officials, vote, and even question why our military is fighting, thank a veteran.

 

Book Review: The Old Testament Case for Nonviolence

oldtestOne of the primary obstacles facing the Christian faith today is the apparent advocation and promotion of indiscriminate violence by the God of the Old Testament. A cursory reading of the Old Testament could lead one to believe that God is in fact, as atheist Richard Dawkins asserts, “the most unpleasant character in all fiction; jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” As a result, many find it impossible to place their faith and trust in an unseen God who appears to have no rhyme or reason for His acts of violence against His own creation. The view of God as a lover and promoter of violence stands in opposition to His loving, merciful, and just nature that is chronicled throughout the Old Testament. Many are left struggling with questions such as, “If God is truly merciful and loving, why did He give the command to not leave alive anything that breathes?” “Why did He command entire cities be destroyed?” Because of the violence, many are unwilling to even consider the possibility that a loving God who cares for His creation and desires a personal relationship with them can exist.

In his new book, The Old Testament Case for Nonviolence, attorney Matthew Curtis Fleischer takes the position that the violence associated with God throughout the Old Testament was neither random or indiscriminate. From the very beginning, Fleischer acknowledges the problem that many have with the God of the Old Testament. He writes, “At first glance, the situation isn’t pretty. In fact, it’s downright ugly.” He offers a laundry list of instances where God commanded violent acts against people, animals, cities, and entire nations- acknowledging His appearance as that of a moral monster. Fleischer sets out to answer three primary questions relating to the reconciliation of the Old and New Testament positions of violence and nonviolence, who we should imitate today as believers, and God’s true nature. At the beginning of chapter two, Fleischer provides the key to resolving the apparent moral contradiction between the testaments. The remainder of the book unpacks his main idea. He wrote that:

 God revealed His ethical idea to humankind. He unveiled it within a developing story, not in standalone rules meted out of one verse, paragraph, or incident at a time. That’s why the Bible is a narrative, not an encyclopedia or constitution. Its ethical storyline goes like this: (1) God chose a specific group of people, (2) set them apart from the rest of the world, (3) gave them a list of rules that improved their ethics beyond anything the world had ever known, (4) gradually continue revealing ethical improvements to them, and (5) then completed His ethical revelation in Jesus. God didn’t just fly by earth one day and drop off a list of finalized rules. He first established a relationship with His chosen people and then progressively taught ethics to all of humanity through them.

Fleischer states the importance of interpreting God’s actions in the Old Testament not from the “modern post-Jesus” perspective, but within the historical and cultural contexts of humans who lived during the time of the Old Testament.  He introduces the reader to many codified laws of other Near East countries. Put into its proper historical context, Fleischer demonstrates how the often-violent commands and strict laws were in fact was an improvement over the laws of that day. Fleischer refers to this improvement as incremental ethical revelation. This revelation made improvements to areas such as slavery, criminal penalties, protection for the disadvantaged, women’s rights, and warfare policies. What appeared to be violence for no reason should be considered as mode of deterrence. There are many instances of what could be considered case law – directions that allowed for punishment in the worst-case scenario. It was not intended to be a license to commit such an act. He goes on further to state that God never intended for His Old Testament commands to be, “universally or eternally applicable. They weren’t directed at all humankind. They weren’t even directed at future believers.” Fleischer details the responsibility the nation of Israel had as God’s people and how those rules refined their worship of God and pointed toward the Savior. To answer his question on who believers should follow today, Fleischer wrote, “God gave Jesus the final word of Christian ethics. His life and teachings represent the culmination of incremental ethical revelation. He fulfilled the law by revealing God’s perfect, eternal, and universally applicable moral code.”

Fleischer has written a powerful and necessary book. It is a fine balance between being over-scholarly and shallow. With skill, he lays out the argument against God from those who would seek to define Him only as impartially violent. He then counters their argument with reasons why God acted in the way He did, demonstrating His loving care for His people in increments they could handle and understand. Fleischer cuts through the noise and offers a biblical defense for a loving, generous, and just God. This is an important apologetic work. For the one who would mistrust God and questions His love, Fleischer’s book challenges their doubt in a non-judgmental manner. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who desires to be sharper in their apologetic of God or knows someone who cannot move past the belief that God is a violent, blood-thirsty tyrant. You need this book on your shelf.

I received a complimentary copy of this book in return for my honest review.

A Tale of Two Churches: Sending Churches Parts 7 and 8

7. The leadership of a Sending Church models and practices a “live sent” lifestyle. I am referring to pastoral leadership specifically. It has been said that “everything rises and falls with leadership.” This is never truer than when it is applied to the New Testament church. One of the interesting things that happens in the local church is that the congregation tends to take on the personality of their pastor. If the pastor is loving and caring, the congregation tends to be so as well. If the pastor is cold and dismissive, the congregation tends to be so as well. If the pastor embraces the fact that God has sent the believer into world to be salt and light and models that is his everyday contact with people, the congregations tends to do the same. One the other hand, if the pastor refuses to embrace this truth and does not “live sent”, all the sermons in the world will not make a difference. Sending Churches are led by pastors who know what it means to “live sent.

8. Sending Churches constantly evaluate ministries, programs, and staff to optimize their impact on the community. The tendency of any organization, churches included, is to continue the same path unless forced into a change of direction. Routines are quickly formed. It is important for churches to evaluate their work and ministry on a regular basis. This evaluation requires tough questions and honest answers. It is difficult because through the years people become attached to “their” programs, classes, and ministries. Leaders must be aware that making changes can create a firestorm when a person’s favorite anything is affected, altered, or discontinued. Churches who intentionally send people and resources into their community constantly evaluate their work. Questions such as “What is working?”, “Do we have proper funding?”, and “What do we need to stop doing?” are routinely asked. Sending Churches are willing to place the “sacred cows” on the altar for the sake of those who have not heard the gospel. Sending Churches constantly ask questions like this one: “In our current situation, what could we do different so that more people and resources are given to the pursuit of those who are not here yet?”

 

A Tale of Two Churches: Sending Churches Parts 5 and 6

5. Sending Churches resist the “maintenance” model of ministry. According to Webster, the word maintain means, “to keep in an existing state.” I am not sure that a more fitting and accurate descriptor of the ministry approach of today’s church can be offered. Churches have become successful at keeping things they are or the way they were. Why is this? I believe it a simple matter of ease. It is easier to take no risk. It is easier to not try. It is easier to work within what is comfortable and familiar – even if it doesn’t work. It has been said that a ship is safe in harbor, but ships were not made for such things. The church wasn’t birthed to remain in harbor under the watch-care and supervision of those who belong to its ranks. The church was birthed to be on offense – moving forward with a clear objective and message. Sending Churches resist maintenance and choose action. They choose risk over ease.

6. Sending Churches view missions not as a singular activity to do but as a lifestyle to be embraced. Churches have become masters of compartmentalization with each ministry element (children, adults, students, music, etc.) working independently boasting their own leader, budget, and calendar. Missions and outreach are no different. Missions is often viewed, although improperly, as a single event, offering, or emphasis. It is something the church does rather than who it is. Sending Churches weave the pursuit of those outside of God’s family into the fabric of their overall ministry and work. The tangible acts of service and love that open the doors for gospel conversations (missions) are part of the church’s DNA and ministry expression. Instead of simply “doing” missions, Sending Churches intentionally live a missional lifestyle.

A Tale of Two Churches: Sending Churches Parts 3 and 4

3. The passion and resolve to reach their community is reflected in the budget of a Sending Church. Budgets say a great deal about priorities. How a family, business, or non-profit spends its limited financial resources paints the picture of what they value. If a church is inward-focused and believes its role is to keep the membership comfortable and happy, their budget will reflect this with a higher percentage of comfort and fellowship ministries. As a result, less money is set aside for missions and community ministry. This is the tendency of Staying Churches. However, Sending Churches prioritize the work of missions and community ministry and their budgets reflect their commitment to an outward focus.  Careful study of their budgets shows the value of others, those not part of the body. Sending Churches believe that ministry should be funded. Why? Two reasons. First, funding gives you the freedom to serve. When the opportunity to serve/minister comes along, money does not become the deciding factor. Second, funding provides visual confirmation to the importance of community ministry. When ministry is funded, it becomes real to the body of Christ.

4. Sending Churches intentionally schedule ministries, events, and activities for reaching their community. The key word here is “intentional.” For far too long churches have expected growth and ministry to just happen. They sit back and wait for the community to walk in the front door. This is a poor outreach strategy. Ministry must be premeditated. To reach communities, churches must move from doing things “by accident” to doing them “on purpose.” Nothing good happens by accident. Hesitancy is planning brings about certain failure. Churches must be intentional in the areas of planning, evangelism, and follow-up. Sending Churches place opportunities for service on their calendars and encourage involvement on behalf of the body. The discipline of intentionally scheduling opportunities for service and involvement moves the peg from “on accident” to “on purpose.”